High Fidelity and my end of year list of favourites

My favourite view in 2008 is from my desk: the Bosporus, early December morning 2008

In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s novel about “young middle-class people whose lives are beginning to disappoint them, making too much noise in restaurants and clubs and wine bars”, the main hero has many problems, including often losing the plot, “the subplot, the script, the soundtrack, the intermission, his popcorn and the exit sign.” He also regularly misses the plot when it comes to matters of the heart.

At the same time Rob has a strange and entertaining addiction: making lists of his personal best ofs. Thus the book starts with a list of his “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups.” Many other lists follow: the top five floor fillers at Groucho dance Club. The four reasons his love, Laura, left him. Reasons to hate Sundays. His five dream jobs. And at the end the top five great records of all time.

I read High Fidelity while travelling to New York this autumn. This comes in handy now as a source of inspiration. Of course, this is a serious site, dealing with serious issues, but now that most readers will have gone on vacation why not conclude the year with a list of Rumeli Observer’s (RO) personal list of “best of”?

So here they are: Rumeli Observer’s Top List 2008

  • favourite book in 2008: Easy to guess: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers – The Secret of Success. It has been praised on these pages before. Since then, those friends of mine who have actually bought and read it, have been as impressed as I have been. Thus I need not hesitate to recommend it here again.
  • favourite history book in 2008: Not much of a surprise either: rereading it while preparing to make a documentary about this very city, Mark Mazower’s Salonica is the best introduction to one of the most fascinating urban experiences in the world.
  • favourite place in 2008: This is the place where we were most likely to have met in the past 12 months: the Gloria Jeans Cafe on the Bosporus in Rumeli Hisari. And where we are most likely to meet in 2009.
  • favorite travel book in 2008: The book is older, but it was this year that I fell for its charm: Georgia – In the mountains of Poetry. Even if you do not intend to travel to Tbilisi, read Peter Nasmyth’s fascinating book. After you read it, you will want to go there. And once you are in Tbilisi, you can get more good books in Prospero’s, the bookshop that Peter Nasmyth helped set up.
  • other favourite travel book in 2008: One of the most unusual travel books of the year, given its subject, must be Verena Knaus’s Kosovo – The Bradt Guide. It is not competing here, as I am somewhat biased (Verena is my sister), but it is selling very well and so I feel encouraged to recommend it anyways.
  • favourite autobiography: Fethiye Cetin’s My grandmother – A memoir. A must for anybody interested in Turkey, Armenia and in the necessity of breaking taboos in this part of the world.
  • other favourite books in 2008 on different regions: on the Caucasus Charles King’s The Ghost of Freedom; on France David Andress’ The terror – Civil war in the French Revolution; on the Middle East Mai Ghoussoub’s Leaving Beirut.
  • favourite new poem in 2008: Ibn Hazm’s The Neck-ring of the Dove, quoted in The Ornament of the World.
  • first new book to read next year, as there was never enough time in 2008: Greg Behrman’s The most noble adventure – The Marshall Plan and the Time when America Helped Save Europe.
  • favourite new concept in 2008: “Hypergraphia” – the medical term for an overpowering desire to write. Well …
  • favourite speech in 2008: This is an easy choice: Barack Obama’s speech on race relations.
  • favourite walk in 2008: Along the shores of the Bosporus in summer, from Rumeli Hisari to Besiktas.
  • favorite movie in 2008: Fatih Akin’s The edge of heaven. Where Turkey and Germany become the magic country Turmany.
  • favourite comedy in 2008: Woody Allen’s Vicky, Christina, Barcelona. The city, the characters, the music …
  • favourite concert in 2008: R.E.M. playing along the shores of the Bosphorus and Michael Stipe calling on the audience to cheer for Obama’s presidential campaign. And then they play Man on the Moon.
  • favourite new CD in 2008: Carla Bruni’s Comme si de rein n’etait. I cannot help it.
  • biggest (negative) political surprise in 2008: the August war in Georgia; the good results of extreme right wing parties in the Austrian national elections.
  • biggest (positive) political surprise in 2008: the defeat of the Radicals in Serbia’s national elections; Barack Obama

Ok, this is getting too serious for an end of year list. So let me conclude my list with my favourite saying of the year: “A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem.” And please let me know what you would recommend to read and listen to in 2009!

Your Rumeli Observer, taking a break in the ESI kitchen in Berlin Kreuzberg

At the end of it all, let me thank Nick Hornby’s Rob for this inspiration. Let me thank all of you – as well as all my colleagues at ESI – for your patience! See you all on these pages next year! Or on the shores of the Bosphorus. Or elsewhere in cyberspace in 2009.

The same Bosporus view at sunset (December 2008)

Abolish the summer vacation: a realistic Big Goal for Kosovo

They are waiting for a BHAG: children in Kosovo

Governments of small states who want to send a positive message to the outside world need a BHAG: a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.  This is not a matter of public relations.  It is about actually doing something new, difficult and innovative, something that both transforms society and carries a larger message for the world about the will of this society to change.

The small country of Estonia (1.3 million people) had a BHAG: turning itself into an internet-savy, forward looking and information-technology-friendly society.  Thus Estonia created a national infrastructure of wireless internet access, free of charge, covering the whole country.  It set out to create early on one of the most advanced forms of e-government.  And while doing so it did not forget to tell the rest of the world about its experience.etf

A few weeks ago in November I went to Tallinn for a meeting of the European Council on Foreign Relations.  Many of the ECFR board members, including, to my surprise, some of the Swedes in our group, had never been to Tallinn before.  At the beginning of the meeting, which took place in the Museum of Estonian Architecture, an Estonian civil society representative gave a 10-minute video-assisted presentation about his country. It was short but effective and even a few weeks later it is easy for me to recall its main messages: that there was an Estonian “singing revolution” (in 1991), which led to independence; that Estonian governments pursued a vision of transparent e-government, including a paper-free government meeting room that has turned into an attraction for visiting delegations; and that Estonia set out to provide free wireless internet access throughout the country as part of a national vision of development. Of course, other Estonian Big Ideas, such as the implementation of its flat tax, have also contributed to its image of being not only open to but a leader in innovation.  This is not a bad record for such a small country on the edge of the EU.

A BHAG transforms or (re)defines a country’s image when it changes local realities in a way that even a critical visitor – the foreign correspondent of a leading international paper, for instance – will accept as impressive. The key is that the policy idea is both fresh and sound and can actually be implemented.  It precedes public relations.  It is about creating the good story that can later be told.

Which brings me to a Big idea which I believe Europe’s youngest and poorest society, Kosovo, might do well to consider pursuing.  It is inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s last book (Outliers), as well as by ideas I had preparing recent presentations on Kosovo and the state of the Balkans in Vienna, in Valencia (for NATO parliamentarians) and at Harvard.  For these I had to reread ESI reports and new material on the state of Kosovo. It was not encouraging reading, to put it mildly.

So here is the basic idea: Kosovo urgently needs to convince first its own citizens and then the world that it is serious about addressing one of its most crippling structural problems, a wide education achievement gap with the rest of Europe.  It needs to do so urgently; with the limited resources it has at hand, it also needs to be innovative.

The basic problem is clear: today Kosovars are less well educated and less prepared to compete in the common European market than almost any other society in Europe.  School enrolment rates  (including at secondary level) are low and have not improved in the past four years. Two out of three young people leave the education system without any qualifications.  More than 10 percent drop out of compulsory education.  The vocational training system is in dire straits. And there is a lack of money, even if spending on education has increased as a percentage of GDP: it does not help that Kosovo’s GDP is in fact one of the lowest in Europe.

Kosovo policy makers thus need to find a way – despite limited budgetary resources – to make rapid and serious progress in addressing education problems while convincing the rest of the world that in this field the situation in Kosovo is not only not hopeless but that the rest of the region might even learn something from Kosovo.

Learning from Kosovo in the field of education policy?

You can certainly see why this would be both a surprising and fascinating topic for articles in the European press – and conversations in European capitals – in a few years time.  It sounds counter-intuitive enough to be interesting.  But is it possible?

On the other hand: who would have thought that one could learn so much from Estonia even one decade ago?

In fact, being forced to think outside the box can sometimes help identify good ideas. The proposal is simple: Kosovo should become the first country in Europe to abolish the long summer school vacationKosovo children should be able to spend more hours per day and more days per year in primary school than children anywhere else in the region. This additional time in school could be used to give Kosovo pupils one of the most solid basic educations in the region.

This proposal would address three major problems at once:

1. There is in fact a desperate shortage of space in Kosovo schools. As a number of recent reports noted, school infrastructure is stretched “almost to breaking point” (ETF country analysis, May 2008). The majority of schools in Kosovo operate in two shifts, and a significant minority even in three. Given the growth of Kosovo’s  young population, demand for space will increase further.

So there is an urgent need to use space more efficiently. It seems a waste of resources to leave schools empty during the summer. It is also silly, given the need to import expensive energy, not to use the summer months for teaching as well.

2. At the same time, first shortening and then abolishing the long summer vacation could help young Kosovars catch up and – in some fields – overtake other European students, particularly when it comes to basic skills taught at primary school level.

One way to do this with limited resources would be to increase the number of hours and days students spend in primary and lower secondary school classes. Currently, due to space constraints, Kosovars probably spend less hours in school than pupils in most other parts of Europe. The goal should be to reverse this and to use any additional hours to increase teaching foreign languages and basic reading, writing and mathematic skills at an earlier age than in other countries in the region.

As Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers, citing the example of a  public school in NY, the number of hours spent in school does matter a lot, particularly for those from a disadvantaged background. The tradition of a long summer vacation – “considered a permanent and inviolate feature of school life, like high school football or the senior prom” – is above all a problem for children from poorer families: it is vacation time that explains a large part of the “achievement gap” between richer and poorer children in different tests done in the US.  This can be measured by comparing students’ scores on tests at the beginning and at the end of long summer vacations:

“the wealthiest kids come back in September and their reading scores have jumped more than 15 points.  The poorest kids come back from the holidays and their reading scores have dropped almost 4 points. Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during the school year. But during the summer, they fall far behind.”

It is not hard to think of Kosovo pupils as the “poor kids” in comparison to any European country. The average Kosovo household probably owns fewer books than the average Slovenian or Irish household. Vacation time is probably used less often for further education in (still largely rural) Kosovo than in most other European countries. There are also fewer private schools and other education opportunities for children during the summer.

Thus a long summer vacation is a luxury Kosovo should reconsider if it wants to become a competitive economy.  And there are examples for this: while the average school year  in the US is 180 days long, it is some 190 days, in Finland, and 243 days lin Japan (German Länder also have shorter summer vacations; see the article by Michael Barrett below under recommended reading.)

3. Finally, there is a need for a clear and compelling vision to mobilise Kosovo society around the need to dramatically raise educational standards. Currently the realistic goal of Kosovo education policy is to avoid falling further behind. There is already now a huge achievement gap, – and it must not grow even larger.

Not falling behind is not the same as catching up. What Kosovo needs is not merely to prevent the gap from growing: it needs to close it! And the best way to do so is to invest significantly in providing the best possible primary education to children at a very young age.

This would require major efforts: more teachers, adjustments in teaching standards, further revisions of curricula (to focus more time on core skills at an earlier age).  There will be many who would argue that for this or that reason it would be impossible to do.

But if more teachers are required, why should more teachers not be trained? This certainly seems one of the most obvious investments to make in Kosovo’s future. Given extremely low employment rates – especially for women – there is no shortage of potential primary school teachers. Still, government incentives are necessary.

A radical and innovative step such as this would also send a clear signal that Kosovo society is serious about catching up. It is a radical and realistic idea. And if it works, it is only a question of time until some neighbours will come and see whether there is something that can be learned here.

Thinking about a prosperous future for Kosovo requires thinking outside the box.  Current trends will not lead to closing the gap. Kosovo is not in short supply of strategic documents on education: there are strategies for developing higher education, for developing pre-university education, vocational education strategies, a national strategy for entrepreneurship education and training, an adult education strategy, and many more.  However, as one very recent assessment noted:

“None of the planned activities in the operational plans accompanying the strategies have been implemented as foreseen.  This is due not only to unrealistic planning but also to low programming and implementation capacities at all levels of the sector, central and regional.” (Lida Kita, European Training Foundation working paper, May 2008)

Further strategies are being prepared, and a new study is planned to “enable Kosovo authorities to depart from fragmented strategic documents” and move towards a “strategic framework for lifelong learning.” There is a very active and committed young Minister of Education, Enver Hoxhaj. There are some committed donors.  So not all is as bleak as the status quo and current trends would suggest. But Kosovo still urgently needs a Big Idea, and becoming an innovator in the field of education policy seems a very good way to start. Questioning the need for a long summer vacation, and defining the national target as a primary education system as good as anywhere else in Europe, seems a good point to start.

PS: Next week I will travel to Kosovo to give a presentation, show a film, and hopefully to test this idea with policy makers and friends, including the current Minister of Education. If there is any interest to explore this further, there might be some ESI discussion paper on this in the coming year.

Further reading:

The message from Prague is loud and clear

Our meetings, organised by ESI and the Prague Security Studies Institute, took place in the first week of December at the marvelous Czernin Palace of the Czech Foreign Ministry. Czech policy makers, journalists and experts spoke to a distinguished group of policy and opinion makers from the Western Balkans about the Czech debate on enlargement.

Only a few weeks are left until the end of this year, when the Czech Republic will assume the EU presidency for six months.

The message from senior policy makers in Prague concernin the Balkans was loud and clear:

“We are expecting your countries’ applications for membership during our presidency.  We have been preparing to receive your applications for membership.  We have coordinated with the government of Sweden (the second EU presidency in 2009) in order to be able to promote the cause of the Western Balkans.  We are ready.”

Despite this clear message I left Prague feeling nervous. Listening to key foreign policy makers here it seemed as if, for practical reasons, the big window of opportunity in 2009 is closing for most of the Western Balkan states even before the year has begun.  Countries in the region only have a few weeks left to get their act together if they want to keep alive their hope to graduate to candidate status in 2009.

Here are some of the basic facts leading to this sobering conclusion:

1. Applications

In order to become a candidate for EU membership a country must first submit a letter to the EU presidency that it actually wants to become a member. This is what Turkey did in 1987, Croatia in 2003, and Macedonia in 2004. Before this happens, nothing else, beyond an association agreement is possible. To do this with any chance of success, a country must obviously be recognised by all EU members as a state: this excludes Kosovo for the foreseeable future.

The historical record is that some EU countries will always try to discourage applications until applicants have made clear their determination and have made their case proactively based on a strong national consensus (I have written about this in an earlier blog on the gatecrasher principle). Montenegro might soon offer a good example of how to combine  determination, focus and flexibility to arrive at a positive result – even when facing an initially sceptical (French) presidency.

2. A decision by the Council

Following the submission of a formal application by a given county the European Council needs to agree to to ask the European Commission to prepare an opinion on it (an avis).

Though it is always posssible for the EU council to refuse to do even this, in the case of the Western Balkan states such a step would send such a strongly negative signal that even the most sceptical EU members appear unwilling to do this. (Serbia’s case is different: without progress in bringing Ratko Mladic to The Hague the Dutch government would almost certainly block any further steps for now).

However, the agenda in early 2009 will be  packed.  Unless an application comes soon enough some EU countries might be tempted to postpone dealing with it for a few months.

There are two European Council meetings under the Czech presidency (and two under the Swedish presidency): the first two in March and June, the last in December.

In order to get all 27 countries to agree to ask the Commission to prepare an opinion on an application, weeks of preparation and consensus building might be necessary. As one senior Czech official told me: “We are prepared for and we would welcome having four applications from the Western Balkans on our table during our presidency.”  But for a positive decision to be reached at the March Council an application would need to be submitted at least a few weeks beforehand, i.e. by January.  Montenegrins have been aware of this constraint for a while.

3. The Questionnaire and the Commission Opinion

Following a request by the Council the Commission sends the applicant country a questionnaire with thousands of questions to be answered.

Even if the Commission does not delay this step and even if a country works hard on the questionnaire the whole process (Council asks Commission for an opinion; Commission sensdsa out the questionnaire; applicant country X completes it; Commission drafts an opinion) is expected to take at least six months.

Thus, if the European Council decides in March to task the Commission to draft an opinion, a realistic best case scenario is that this would be done in time for the last Council summit under the Swedish presidency in December.  (An added complication are EU parliamentary elections and following this the formation of a new Commission in 2009).

The best case scenario already requires a lot of things to go well: if all countries of the Western Balkans submit their applications for membership within the first few weeks of 2009, and if the Czech presidency and other friendly member states convince fellow EU govenrments to task the Commission to study these applications; and if all the Balkan countries focus their energies on filling out the questionaires, and if they also succeed in addressing the major criticisms and concerns outlined already in the regular European Commission opinions; then the December 2009 European Council could grant all of them candidate status.  December 2009 would then mirror the Helsinki summit of 1999, a major breakthrough for enlargement at the time.

This would be a strong and welcome message to the region, and to the world, that things are advancing in the Balkans.  It would be all the more useful at a time of growing regional uncertainty, as to the impact of the world economic crisis on local economies and the deepening confusion over future EU policy in Kosovo. It would also send a strong signal in the wake of possible approval of the Lisbon Treaty by a second Irish referendum in 2009.  Finally, it would be a fitting conclusion to  the Swedish presidency, which has enlargement as one of its top priorities.

So far, so promising.

Speaking off the record, however, senior members of the Czech government and administration increasingly doubt that all of the countries of the region are likely to take the steps required to make this scenario even a theoretical possibility in 2009. As one stold us, “we are studying country by country to see where we can move things forward.”

What this incresingly means today is the following set of reduced ambitions:

  1. to complete negotiations with Croatia in 2009;
  2. to help “one country, perhaps two” obtain visa-free access for its citizens to the EU already in 2009: that country being Macedonia (the clear front-runner when it comes to fulfilling the conditions relating to visa free travel);
  3. to help Montenegro get a positive decision at the March EU summit so that the Commission may start working on an opinion following an early Montenegrin application.  Bosnia would be left behind, Albania’s next steps remain uncertain and Serbia is likely to loose more time as well.

Let me admit: I usually like to look at the bright side of things, to see opportunities even when they are small. There is still a small chance that the Western Balkans will finally wake up to the fact that 2009 is a real window of opportunity.

Perhaps a pending Montenegrin application would shake up confused and divided political establishments in Bosnia, Albania and Serbia and stir them into action?

This time around countries in the region cannot complain about the lack of positive and encouraging signals: the messages from Prague and Stockholm – and even from the Commission – have been clear. However, as seen from Prague in early December 2009, the main new question appears increasingly why Serbia, Bosnia and Albania find it so hard to take advantage of significant good will in both EU governments and EU institutions.

This, however, is an issue for another blog.